Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Accepting a Tough Critique with Katy Huth Jones

Hello! I have Katy Huth Jones here with us to talk about accepting a tough critique, which, if you're serious about writing and you haven't had one already, is going to happen to you. It just is. Someone, someday, and probably someday soon, is going to crush your perception of your book's perfection.

Does this mean that you should hide your book under a basket and never let it see the light? Of course not! Read on.

I met Katy in a Facebook party for another author's book, where she was a guest speaker. I won a dragon from her and we discussed princes with missing older brothers. Unfortunately, I've not yet had a chance to read her books. I plan to, though. She's a lovely lady.

Visit her on the Interwebs:



Accepting a Tough Critique
by Katy Huth Jones

A few years ago, I had what began as an encouraging interchange with a literary agent in New York City who specialized in speculative fiction. He excitedly asked for a manuscript after I sent a query with a synopsis and sample chapter. (This was the late 1990's, when everything was done via snail mail.) Thrilled, I sent the novel. He wrote back and politely declined, saying it didn't work for him because of plot holes A, B & C, but to try again.

At the time I didn't have another completed fantasy, so I rewrote the entire manuscript, trying to follow his suggestions. This took several months, and meanwhile I was selling magazine articles on spec, so it was eighteen months before I sent the agent another query.

In his chatty reply, he said he remembered me. Even though he didn't usually take a second look at a rejected manuscript, he invited me to send it. He rejected it a second time, detailing more suggestions for revision.

Unbelievably, he let me send the third rewrite two and a half years later. This time, I received a scathing reply, by far the worst rejection out of nearly 2,000 in thirty years of writing for publication. I thought my heart would stop, he was so frustrated with me. Here are a few quotes from his letter dated July 22, 2003:

"As I've said before and I'm apparently destined to say again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again (yes he did use NINE "agains"), you've managed to write another new and improved and shorter draft that STILL doesn't manage to come up with a plot problem....Yeah, I'm being much harsher and much angrier today than I was in July 1999 or January 2001. But how much patience am I supposed to invest in how many drafts over how many years?....You ought to be asking why/how it is that you've been trying to peddle this manuscript for something like five years without getting anywhere with it, without fixing the problems I've been trying to point out for all that time....Certainly you've made some great strides line-by-line, but that doesn't forgive the fact that you're how many drafts into this novel without yet coming up with one that defines and builds on a plot problem."

Needless to say, I was crushed. I'd been published for years by then, short stories, magazine articles, and two picture books, so I knew I could write. What I didn't understand at the time of that frustrated letter was the difference between writing a short story and writing a novel.

I shelved the manuscript and focused on other writing projects. Eight years later, my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. I needed to pour out my grief and anguish in a socially acceptable way, so as a writing exercise I unearthed the manuscript, threw away all but the opening scene and asked the main characters, "Will you tell me your story?"

For months, chapter after chapter literally poured out, changing the characters, changing the plot, changing pretty much everything. I finally realized the agent's harsh critique had been absolutely correct. The three versions he read were filled with cardboard cut-out characters I had moved around like pieces on a chessboard, forcing an unworkable plot upon them. The new version of the story grew organically from living, breathing people with motivations, desires, goals, heartaches. Of course, the agent couldn't have represented me; what I'd sent him was unpublishable!


That experience taught me to learn what I could from all critiques, especially the harsh ones. Underneath the anger and frustration lies the kernel of truth, assuming the critic is not a troll, destroying for destruction's sake, and this agent was definitely not a troll. Writing is a craft, and the more we perfect our techniques, the better our novels, short stories, poetry, and nonfiction will become.

26 comments:

  1. WOW! Nine "agains"?!

    What an encouraging story!! Thanks for sharing!!

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    1. Thanks for reading, Tammy! Because I'm a pack rat, I saved that letter, so I could verify there were nine. LOL

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    2. The 9 "agains" feel unnecessary. I think 3 would've sufficed. :P ;)

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    3. Definitely! One "again" for each submission. LOL

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  2. This was great, Katy. I have yet to receive a harsh critique for any of my work, but this was a very helpful post nonetheless. Thank you for sharing this with us! <3

    ~ Savannah
    scattered-scribblings.blogspot.com

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    1. Glad you found it helpful, Savannah, and I pray you never have to receive such a harsh critique. But if you do, hopefully you'll learn from it more quickly than I did. LOL

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    2. Haha, I hope so, too ;). But if I need encouragement, I'll probably come back to your post <3.

      ~ Savannah
      scattered-scribblings.blogspot.com

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  3. Katy can take and learn from a tough critique - and she can hand it out as well! Around twenty years ago (yikes! that long?!?) Katy reviewed a manuscript for me and added detailed notes starting on page one. The three chapters were annotated with numerous editorial and proof readers marks, and I read them all carefully.
    At the end of the manuscript she included a numbered list of things I needed to consider. And she ended it thus:

    "On second thought, you need to get rid of the first section."

    I was floored! But as I read over the story again, trying to view it dispassionately, I realized she was correct. The first section that I thought so highly of did not fit. I did manage to insert it at a later point, somewhat rewritten.
    But the lessons I learned from her hard, honest, and detailed critique has stayed with me, and I think made me a better writer.
    The words can be changed at need; it's the story that counts. And she never criticized the story.
    I count Katy as one of my best friends, and am proud she accorded me the respect she did then.

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    1. Aw, I'd forgotten about that! Glad we're still friends, even after my tough critique!

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  4. Wow. You " threw away all but the opening scene and asked the main characters, 'Will you tell me your story?' "

    How amazing is this statement? I think I need to do the same with an old draft. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.

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    1. It was tough love (for me; the characters knew their story all along, but I wasn't listening carefully). Thanks for reading, Laura! I highly recommend trying it with a draft that isn't working....

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  5. Wow. It's one thing when someone is intensely critical yet encouraging, but it's something else if it's just all-around harsh and discouraging. Learning to handle it is a valuable, if tough, life lesson.

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    1. It's the ultimate paradox for any kind of artist (writing, visual arts, music). We must be sensitive in order to create, yet develop a thick skin to keep from crumbling when rejection and criticism come our way. ((HUG))

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  6. Thanks for the encouragement and the advice.

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    1. You're welcome, Sarah! Thanks for reading!

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  7. I think criticism needs to be done properly. I once had some criticism that wasn't short on bite but I couldn't find many who thought the advice was good. It was all over the place and the person didn't even seem to have read my story at some places.
    I think criticism can and should be "tough" at times. We need it. But if the advice gets lost in the sea of snark, it might not hit it's target the way it should.

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    1. I definitely agree, J. J. and I don't personally use snark because I know how words can hurt. When I'm asked to critique someone's writing, I always try to point out what they're doing right before addressing the parts that need work.

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    2. I think pretty much anyone can be better than somebody calling my writing "frustrating," "so dull," and attacking me for an unbelievable twist that actually wasn't even implied to have happened. (And not one other reader ever came away with that impression that said twist happened.) lol

      I think it's also healthy for writers to be able to walk away from criticism. They should just know why. Too many cooks in the kitchen can be a bad thing, even if any individual piece of advice is theoretically sound. Sometimes we just need to keep critique in a proper perspective, giving it neither too much nor too little consideration.

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    3. Definitely! Two editors or two agents or two beta readers can have opposite critiques, so the writer should always go with what's best for the story.

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    4. There is the possibility of over-editing. I do want my work to be human, not perfect and robotic.

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    5. You're right, Erika. It's possible to over-edit the humanity out of a piece until it becomes the editor's voice and not the writer's. I had to arm-wrestle my editor over my last trad published book. Much of what she wanted to change did help the story, but I "won" on those points I felt would have changed the heart of the story.

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  8. Thanks for sharing your experience, Katy! :)
    I think the harshest criticism I've gotten on my work would be...probably my sisters. Of course, they're trying to get me to live up to the legacy of Tolkien, which I know right now I'll never do. But I try to always consider what they have to say, and use it to re-shape my work. :D

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    1. You're welcome, Shay, and thanks for reading! Good for you, finding those bits within the criticism that you can use to make your writing even better!

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  9. Wow! Thanks for sharing your experience so that we can learn alongside you! :) It can be really really hard to hear, but constructive criticism is for our benefit!

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    1. Thanks for reading, Abigayle! Yes, it's really painful at first, but like surgery hurts until it heals, constructive criticism makes our writing better in the end. (Ouch, that's a painful comparison, huh?)

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Hi! Now that you've read my post, hast thou any opinions that thou wouldst like to share? I'd love to hear them!

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